Jet-lagged and still on Los Angeles time in Dublin yesterday morning, “Room” director Lenny Abrahamson woke up in the afternoon, sauntered downstairs and figured he’d watch the nominations announcement and show some love for star Brie Larson, who was a favorite to be mentioned. He didn’t figure on too much support from the Academy besides, because, like any artist new to the awards circuit, he couldn’t help but pay attention to the punditry.
“It’s very hard not to look,” Abrahamson says. “The way I describe it is if you’re sitting at a restaurant and you realize the people in the next booth are talking about you and they don’t know you’re there, of course it’s almost impossible not to listen. I managed for quite a period of time not to look. And it became more pleasant, to do your thing and let it happen in the background. But as it came closer I did start to look at the lists. And you believe the predictions, because I think people are generally reasonably accurate.”
He understood key misses for the film from organizations like the Producers Guild of America, he says, “because I have a sense of what the membership is, so I thought, ‘I can understand why we’re not there and ‘Carol’ is not there.’ I noticed in the last few days we had dropped off. I believed what everyone else believed, which is that it is a film people might not watch. Once people do watch it, though, they become very attached to it and feel very strongly about it, so I think I underestimated the people voting.”
Indeed, not only did “Room” end up making it into the best picture line-up, but Abrahamson himself was the surprise of the morning, turning up in the best director field. Along with Larson, the film was also nominated for Emma Donoghue’s screenplay, adapted from her novel.
“I could not have been more surprised when my name was called out,” Abrahamson says. “My wife and I were in the kitchen and we just started laughing. I had certainly convinced myself, and her, that it wasn’t going to happen. And when people in Ireland say, ‘Oh, you’re going to do well. We’re rooting for you,’ you feel like such a killjoy when you say, ‘You know what? I get how these things work now and this isn’t going to happen, so just don’t think that way.’ And yet it still did.”
The directors branch of the Academy often takes its own course. Filmmakers like Bennett Miller (“Foxcatcher”), Alexander Payne (“Nebraska”), Benh Zeitlin (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”) and Mike Leigh (“Vera Drake”), to name but a few, have managed to find room for refined, smaller work amid showier circuit favorites. So Abrahamson couldn’t be more enthused to receive a vote of confidence from his peers.
“The style of direction in ‘Room,’ maybe a little bit like ‘Spotlight,’ tries to be hidden,” he says. “I try to not get between the viewer and the characters, even though I’m working incredibly hard. But it seems like people really got that. I think as directors they may recognize, more than the rest of the body of filmmakers, exactly what you do as a director, because I think sometimes the conception is if the camera isn’t swinging around and it’s not pyrotechnic or worthily melodramatic, then the direction is uninvolved. But trying to make something as tricky as ‘Room’ really believable is extremely hard and it largely rests with that relationship between the actors and the director, and the director and the crew. So I’m really honored that that group of directors recognized that and were willing to vote for me.”
Of his fellow nominees, Abrahamson has only been able to see the work of George Miller (“Mad Max: Fury Road”) and Tom McCarthy (“Spotlight”), but he looks forward to catching up. He particularly loved McCarthy’s film.
“That was the film I saw at Telluride that I most liked,” he says. “Tom, in that film, is my kind of director. It’s so seamless. It’s so believable. He manages the flow of information so well and makes it fascinating, and that’s a really difficult thing to do. It has the quality of really good ’70s filmmaking, so I’m delighted to see him nominated.”
As for “Fury Road,” he calls it “one of the most extraordinary tours de force. And if you’re going to go pyrotechnic, boy does he manage to do it, and with such aplomb.”
However, like most, he was surprised “The Martian” helmer Ridley Scott was squeezed out in the end.
“I think that’s the biggest shock of all, really,” he says. “He’s an incredible director with a massive legacy. He was my favorite to win the prize at the Oscars, so that’s amazing and very surprising.”
And with that, the year’s biggest Oscar underdog just breathes a sigh of awe at the whole thing. “Room” debuted at the Telluride Film Festival (a good Oscar harbinger for many films in recent years), went on to claim the Toronto festival’s audience award and then opened in very limited release on Oct. 16. Never playing on more than 200 screens, the film crawled to the $5 million box office mark, but it arrives in the U.K. and Ireland today, somewhat serendipitously for the Dublin-born Abrahamson.
Stateside, distributor A24 will reach its highest screen count yet with close to 300 (which will potentially yield the film’s biggest box office weekend yet). That was mostly in response to Larson’s win at the Golden Globes last week, but with a few choice Oscar nominations in the bank, the plan going forward is to keep growing it, with an eye on the 800-1,000 screen range.
It’s been a very long play, but for the film’s director, the shock won’t be wearing off any time soon.
“I’m going out to just have a few drinks now with everyone who’s involved here and I think our plan is to sit there quietly shaking our heads in wonder at each other,” he says.